BOISE – Idahoans who rent motel rooms, homes or apartments that previously housed illegal methamphetamine labs have no way to know if toxic chemicals remain in carpets, walls, drapes and ventilation systems.
But next month, under a law enacted nearly unanimously by the Legislature this year, the state will begin developing cleanup standards. Once those are finalized and approved by the Legislature next winter, any meth lab site will have to remain vacant until it is cleaned up to those standards and cleared for habitation.
“We think it’s a great addition, and it’s going to provide a lot of safety to the children of Idaho and anyone who buys or rents a house … or even a motel room,” said Maj. Dave Kane of the Idaho State Police.
Kane had experience with meth lab sites when he was an ISP captain in Lewiston. “I know of a couple of motels up there that we took two or three meth labs out of, and the next day, the rooms were rented out – burns in the carpet, burns on the counters,” he said. “There was no way that the property could have been cleaned to any standards other than having a maid go in and vacuum it and change the sheets.”
Until the new law was passed, that wasn’t illegal in Idaho. But now Idaho has joined a growing number of states requiring cleanups and setting cleanup standards. Washington and Oregon have had such laws on the books for more than a decade. Colorado, Hawaii, Alaska, Arkansas and Arizona are among those that have enacted them in the last three years.
When a meth lab was discovered last week in a north Coeur d’Alene duplex, the property manager’s maintenance man took extra precautions.
“We wore respirators here the first day,” said Ron Booth of Resort Property Management during a quick tour of the home Monday. “We didn’t want to chance it.”
Although police said the lab was just a small one, Andrew Golmicz, president of RPM, called in a professional service that cleans former meth lab properties to Washington state standards, he said.
He estimates it will cost about $1,500 to make sure the duplex is free of meth residue. “That’s a drop in the bucket compared with what they can cost you,” he said.
Despite the cost to property owners, Golmicz said it makes sense to have a state, or even federal, law that requires properties to be cleaned to certain standards.
Booth also has to repair damaged drywall in the basement, where insulation is pouring onto the floor from between the studs. He suspects that someone in a meth-induced paranoid delusion tore the wall apart.
“Meth labs are definitely a health hazard,” said Susan Cuff, spokeswoman for the Panhandle Health District. “It does create a hazardous environment, particularly for children.”
The ISP’s Kane said toddlers who crawl on contaminated carpeting are among those particularly at risk. “The potential for children in the development stage having some form of poison or toxic chemical enter their system is very high,” he said.
Tom Torgerson, a Coeur d’Alene Realtor, said cleanup and vacancy costs can be high for the owners, but those costs are less than those owners could face if they rent or sell a contaminated property, make someone sick and face lawsuits. “It’s a common-sense law,” he said.
Under the new law, once a property is certified as clean and habitable, future owners or tenants couldn’t sue for contamination.
John Eaton, government affairs director for the Idaho Association of Realtors, said Colorado may provide a good model for Idaho’s new standards. Colorado did extensive scientific studies of contamination from meth labs before developing its standards. They call for everything from airing out rooms to replacing ventilation systems and fixtures and doing major construction.
“The level of infection is going to depend completely on what kind of chemicals were used, and then also how long it’s been there and where it’s at in the house,” Eaton said. “It can vary all the way from basically take out some of the furniture and the drapes and wash down the walls, all the way to having to tear the carpet up, replace the drywall, the whole nine yards.”
Jerry Schreiner, owner of Alliance Environmental, with offices in Post Falls and Spokane, said his firm does meth-lab cleanups, and they typically run $3,500 to $4,000.
“We use a solution to scrub the walls,” he said. “All the carpet has to be completely thrown out, and all the furniture and stuff that’s in there, it goes. Then we can clean it, sample it again, and make sure all the meth is gone. … Sometimes you have to tear out the drywall if it won’t come clean.”
Even insulation sometimes has to be removed to get rid of toxic chemicals.
Nationally, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, meth-lab cleanups average around $5,000. But they can run much higher.
Torgerson encountered another side of the problem when he sold an older, three-bedroom, two-bath home in Coeur d’Alene, and neither he nor the new buyers knew there’d been a meth bust there. When the new buyers put the house up for rent, the prospective tenants learned about the past meth bust, “and they wouldn’t move in,” Torgerson said. “We had the house professionally tested and there were no signs of any meth residue, but there was no mechanism to get the house off the list.”
It turned out that the bust in that home had turned up lab equipment, but no signs of manufacture of the drug, Torgerson said. But there was no legal way to certify that the home was clean and habitable.
“It’s already unfortunate that the owner of the house has received the financial ding of his tenant’s actions, so let’s at least let the poor landlord get on with his life” after cleanup, Torgerson said.
State Sen. John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, said, “My biggest concern was a permanent cloud on the title for something that may or may not have been a health hazard.” The new law, he said, is “a step in the right direction.”
For the most part, property owners are stuck with the cleanup costs, he said. Goedde, an insurance broker, said some homeowners’ insurance will cover such costs, but increasingly, “those claims will be denied.”
The Idaho Department of Health and Welfare will hire a new director for the cleanup-standards program on July 1, who then will coordinate meetings with stakeholders across the state to develop the new cleanup standards and rules. Those will go before the Board of Health and Welfare for approval, and then to state lawmakers when they convene next January. Once they OK the standards and rules, the law will take effect.
In the meantime, said Eaton, “If you find one (a meth lab) on your property, probably the best thing to do is call a professional, a certified industrial hygienist, have them look at it and assess what needs to be done, and have it taken care of.”
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